Behind the headlines about armed standoffs with federal agents over public lands, there unfolds a largely untold drama of local democracy increasingly under siege by right-wing paramilitaries and associated groups. Oregon has become a particular hotbed for the paramilitary wing of this nationally resurgent Patriot movement. Up In Arms: A Guide to Oregon’s Patriot Movement explores this drama close up. It should serve as a wake-up call to defenders of democracy across the country.
Designed for a wide audience including journalists, public officials, and social justice activists, this toolkit offers a detailed report on the so-called Patriot movement, case studies of community resistance to this armed and dangerous threat, and resources for local activists. As we go to press, the country is experiencing a broad resurgence in right-wing populist demagoguery, White nationalism, and xenophobia—conditions that inspire and embolden the Patriot movement. Indeed, as we approach the 2016 presidential elections, conditions appear favorable for continued and expanded Patriot organizing—regardless of who wins the White House. While residents of Oregon and surrounding states will find special value in the detailed accounts of local Patriot groups, figures, and strategies, the findings and resources herein are broadly relevant across communities and states.
The Patriot movement is not a new phenomenon. In the 1990s the movement galvanized millions of Americans around the idea that the most dire and imminent threat to their freedom and safety came from their own federal government. The Patriot movement peaked during—and in opposition to—the administration of President Bill Clinton. Animated by the Brady Bill’s restrictions on assault weapons and the tragedies at Waco and Ruby Ridge, the movement spun conspiracy theories that warned of imminent foreign invasion, secret concentration camps, treasonous politicians, and a shadowy “New World Order.” It drew participants and ideas from a wide range of right-wing movements, among them White supremacist “Christian Identity” followers, gun rights groups, anti-globalists of the John Birch Society, apocalyptic Christian evangelicals preparing for the coming millennium, and anti-environmental “wise use” campaigners.
Self-styled “militias” were the armed wing, and a key feature, of the 1990s Patriot movement. These paramilitaries became active in all 50 states, with a combined membership numbering in the tens of thousands. Ultimately, the world witnessed the destructive power of this movement and its ideologies in the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City by neonazi Timothy McVeigh. That domestic terrorist attack claimed 168 lives.
The 2008 election of Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States, sparked a national Patriot movement revival, with the formation of new organizations and networks. While overshadowed by the prominence of Tea Party groups until its 2014 standoff with Bureau of Land Management agents at the Nevada ranch of Cliven Bundy, the Patriot movement had nonetheless been building its capacity. With their occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon for 41 days in the winter of 2016, Patriot movement groups again landed front-and-center on the national scene.
As PRA research fellow and lead author Spencer Sunshine, PhD, documents with exceptional diligence and detail, key contemporary groups and personnel trace back to Patriot movement mayhem in the 1970s and 1990s. Now as then, Oregon and the larger Northwest region plays a distinct and prominent role in the national Patriot movement. The legacy of White supremacist group Posse Comitatus–with its convoluted constitutional theories, emphasis on building power at the county level, and strategy of creating fake courts to pronounce judgement on its adversaries–continues to shape the ideology and strategy of Patriot organizing in the Northwest.
We are indebted to the researchers and activists who have informed our understanding of the Patriot movement–many of whose names and works can be found in the extensive endnotes. Sunshine’s research builds on important earlier work on the 1990s “Patriots” by, among others, Political Research Associates’ own former longtime senior analyst and Right Wing Populism in America co-author, Chip Berlet. The research and publications of the Northwest Coalition for Human Dignity – a collaborator with the Rural Organizing Project during the 1990s that has since closed its doors–likewise warrants special recognition.
This guide was produced in partnership between Political Research Associates (PRA) and the Oregon-based community organizing group Rural Organizing Project—continuing PRA’s long tradition of supporting social justice change makers with research, analysis, and hands-on tools to understand and overcome organized threats to human rights and democracy. (PRA has previously published activist resource toolkits on such topics as reproductive justice, immigrant rights, public education, democracy, and criminal justice reform.) We stand with the Rural Organizing Project and local activists who risk their personal safety in refusing to surrender democracy to its armed adversaries. Both the danger and stakes are high. Rural Oregon human dignity activists have had their meetings protested by armed opponents, received death threats too numerous to count, dealt with dangerous tampering of their cars, and seen local law enforcement officers sworn to defend their rights instead side with the right-wing paramilitaries.
This desperate struggle for democracy remains invisible in part because it plays out largely in poor rural counties on the margins of national concerns and electoral calculations. Such communities must not be treated as expendable. Those who choose to disregard the menace taking root there today run the risk of confronting an enlarged threat to the broader body politic tomorrow.
This guide both honors and carries on the legacy of Rural Organizing Project’s late founder (and Political Research Associates board member) Marcy Westerling. Her forebears were active in the World War II Dutch resistance and Marcy was a community builder and freedom fighter in her own right. She launched ROP in the crucible of attacks on the human rights of LGBTQ Oregonians in the early 1990s, and for over twenty years brought community activists from across the state together to advance democracy and social justice in the face of often relentless attacks on immigrants, poor people, and other marginalized populations. I believe Marcy would be incensed at the Patriot movement’s destructive force in Oregon, furious at the neglect of rural communities by political leaders, and proud of the courage and tenacity with which her Rural Organizing Project successors have risen to meet the challenge.
For Political Research Associates,
Tarso Luís Ramos